Hillsborough: Pleeeeeease Stop Obsessing Over Norman Bleedin’ Bettison
September 19, 2013
by Martin Odoni
Every great drama needs its pantomime villain, it’s the only way a drama can be coherent in the average person’s mind; to have someone to personalise the wrongdoing. Where would Shakespeare’s works have been without his portrayals of MacBeth, Shylock, Richard III, Cassius, Edmund of Gloucester, and so on? What would Dallas have amounted to without JR Ewing? Where would the Star Wars trilogy have been without Darth Vader? House Of Cards without Francis Urquhart/Frank Underwood (depending which version you’re watching) would be like a book without pages.
The pantomime villain is almost omni-present.
The problem is, that’s drama. It’s fiction, and fiction has a wonderful knack for making the complexities of injustice look reassuringly simple, and it can become a serious hindrance to putting things right when that simplified image is mentally superimposed on the real world by the wider public.
So with Sir Norman Bettison and the Hillsborough Disaster. (If you need a recap of exactly who Bettison is, and what his role was in Hillsborough, please read this.) Now I am certainly not disputing, nor have I ever disputed – despite words that certain ‘individuals’ have tried to put in my mouth – that Bettison is the epitome of the bent copper. A read-through of the record of corruption in the West Yorkshire Police force during his time in charge of it is enough to make even the most hardened cynic’s face turn so white it would glow in the dark. And yes, despite his denials, there is a very real probability that he was deliberately and actively involved in the Hillsborough cover-up itself. (Although it is still not certain. It has been pointed out to me by one survivor of the Disaster that, in the aftermath of the Taylor Interim Report’s publication in August 1989, Bettison was the officer in charge of ‘redacting’ video footage for presentation to Members of Parliament. This raises the probability that he selectively edited it to make the fan behaviour look worse than it really was, but again it is not certain, not without knowing far more detail about the redaction process. See pages 359-to-364 of the Report of the Hillsborough Independent Panel.)
However, there is an advancing tendency amongst more and more Hillsborough campaigners almost to view Bettison as the heart of everything that is wrong with human society. It is as though they think that if he were eliminated, the whole world would suddenly be put to rights.
Only the other day, I was studying on online conversation between Hillsborough campaigners regarding the notorious disappearance of two CCTV tapes from the Hillsborough video control room on the evening of the Disaster. The speculation that followed as to how the tapes had vanished inevitably turned to perfectly reasonable declarations that they had been stolen. (This is the only plausible conclusion, as the tapes were stored in a locked cupboard, and the control room had been locked as well after Sheffield Wednesday’s video technician, Roger Houldsworth, had put them away. There were apparently only two sets of keys, one set in the possession of the club, the other in the possession of the South Yorkshire Police.)
It is a symptom of the unthinking general animosity towards Bettison that almost immediately, people in the online conversation nominated him as one of the likeliest candidates to have stolen the tapes. This suggestion is a huge stretch, as all indications are that, by the time that Houldsworth had departed from the control room, Bettison had already left the stadium – probably upwards of an hour earlier. (Bettison’s witness statement reveals that he returned to the stadium around 1am, confirmed by the statement of DC Robert Hydes, but he went to the club gymnasium, being used as a temporary mortuary, to check ‘Missing Persons’ Reports against the list of confirmed dead, not to the control box.) And frankly there is no need to drag Bettison into the scenario at all when there were so many other South Yorkshire Police officers still in the stadium, some of whom, such as Assistant Chief Constable Walter Jackson (just for instance), would have had better access and more immediate motive to remove the tapes – it is doubtful in the extreme that Bettison would have known at this stage that there was anything to cover up.
Now I feel no inclination actually to defend Bettison, whose history as a police officer is quite unambiguously corrupt, irrespective of whether or not he really did take an active role in the Hillsborough cover-up – which, to repeat, he probably did. But at the same time, I am getting increasingly bothered by the ludicrous mental gymnastics some Hillsborough campaigners are prepared to resort to in their hopes of incriminating him. My main issue with this is that the fixation on Bettison is beginning to blot out every other aspect of the cover-up, which rather plays into the hands of the system that is the real root of the scandal.
To explain; one of the fundamental reasons the cover-up occurred in the first place is institutional, not personal. Sure, many officers near the peak of the hierarchy in the South Yorkshire Police were trying to protect their own reputations, but they were also semi-compelled to by the system of the Police Force itself. The culture of the police requires that it have an unsullied image of incorruptibility, and even where it has fallible practises, it must in any event appear to have infallible intentions. It requires this illusion in order to maintain the moral authority to do the job of governing the day-to-day activities of society, and of enforcing the Law. Any lawman who wishes to impose his view on what he perceives to be a violation of the Law will have little authority to do so if he himself has a known history of violations. The public just won’t trust him enough to co-operate with him. That problem can be multiplied by many scales when it happens to an entire Police force; any Police force that does not have the public on its side faces an uphill struggle to maintain order.
In the case of Hillsborough, the South Yorkshire Police did a lamentably poor job, both in terms of whom they selected to head up the operation (Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield, who had almost no experience policing a football match in over ten years), and in its prevailing attitude towards the people they were supposed to ensure the safety of. By treating football supporters as inherent scum, they were violating the ‘Duty-of-care’ that all police officers must sign up to on the day they join the force. With this dismal record of mismanagement before the day, and on the day, the only way for the South Yorkshire Police to maintain the illusion of moral authority was to create the secondary illusion that the Disaster was self-inflicted – that the supporters themselves were the creators of their own fate. This allowed the South Yorkshire Police, as a collective body, to maintain its position as the enforcers of the Law, by giving the appearance of being fully within their rights to do so: Even if we failed, they insisted, it was because we have our limits, not because we didn’t care. We may not be perfect, but we are not negligent, we are not corrupt. So long as this illusion was kept intact by the orchestrated campaign of blame-shifting, the wider public in Yorkshire would continue to trust them, and would be less prone to a skeptical or rebellious attitude to the authority of the police.
And it is this system, and the illusions that maintain it when it so clearly and desperately needs overhauling, that above all else need to be exposed, because without its mixture of complacency and evasion-of-responsibility, the Disaster would probably not have happened, and the cover-up certainly would not have happened. But instead, this growing obsession with going after Bettison, and trying to implicate him in parts of the cover-up that were nothing to do with him, is drawing attention away from that more fundamental issue. Yes, if Bettison was an active contributor in the cover-up, which he probably was, then he should be sent down for it, no arguments. And in any event, he deserves to go down for all the other dirty pies his grubby fingers have been in down the years*. But taking him to task will not even begin to address the systemic problems that allowed the Disaster and the cover-up, nor the culture of unaccountability, the dominant mentality of ‘enforce-the-law-without-being-subject-to-it’, which is clearly rampant throughout the British Police.
On the contrary, so long as Bettison remains the pantomime villain that keeps drawing everybody’s attention, he will give that system and the people near the apex exactly what they need in order to keep the broader illusion intact – a scapegoat. Let the public destroy him, they will think, let the public think all the corruption is embodied purely in Bettison, and maybe one or two of his accomplices. Then we won’t have to face the wrath of mass outrage, and we shan’t have to face the daunting task of reforming the system and changing its culture, all while still having to maintain order when the public have no confidence in us.
Any skilled trickster knows that, to maintain an illusion, you have to draw the audience’s attention away from the important part of what you are doing. By becoming fixated on Sir Norman Bettison, the audience is sparing the tricksters in the Police Force even the effort to draw their attention away; because the audience is distracting itself.
* It needs to be recognised that, while Bettison’s record is about as far from spotless as a police officer’s can be, not every accusation put his way will prove to be true. For instance, he was recently cleared by a Derbyshire Police investigation of alleged involvement in the attempted sale of stolen platinum wire while he was an Inspector with the South Yorkshire Police in 1987. Strangely, this case with the wire was defiantly presented to me a few months ago by one Hillsborough campaigner as ‘evidence’ that Bettison was definitely guilty of colluding in the Hillsborough cover-up. Given that it was a completely unrelated case, that seemed a gigantic leap anyway, but when the news came out of Bettison’s acquittal over the matter, it is noticeable that some Hillsborough campaigners reacted with outrage, proclaiming it to be yet another cover-up. As is so often the case with these mass outcries, there was a mindset of irrational stubbornness to the shrieking. Actual evidence stating why Bettison was guilty over the platinum wire incident was never put forward, beyond a very incongruous, “Well he must be guilty of this because he’s guilty of the Hillsborough cover-up!” So, to sum up, the stolen-wire incident proves his guilt over the Hillsborough cover-up, and the Hillsborough cover-up proves his guilt over the stolen-wire incident.
This is, need it even be said, circular reasoning of a very low standard.
What, indeed, would be the point of covering up Bettison’s would-be involvement in the stolen-wire scandal, when his name has spent over a year being dragged back-and-forth through the mud of the British media? Would evading this one scandal really make any positive difference to him?
Far more serious and concerning is Bettison’s apparent involvement in the Stephen Lawrence murder case in 1993, where his intervention sounds rather more consistent with his seedy habits of PR-savvy control-of-message.
Yes, he’s a bent cop, no doubt about that. But let’s get the facts right about what he actually has done. I mean, what will he be accused of next? The Kennedy Assassination? Bettison was only seven years old at the time. How about The Murder Of The Princes In The Tower? That was, er, a little while before Bettison was even born.
More essays about the Hillsborough Disaster; –